If it were not for Mary Ambler, the pale 13-year-old daughter of Virginia Treasurer Jaquelin Ambler, we might not have the Constitution we have today. The young teenager — who was called Polly — was the lovely object of John Marshall’s affection. In 1780, the 24-year-old Marshall, then an army captain, pursued her to Williamsburg, where her father was then serving. Eventually with no troops to command and nothing to do but wait until Polly was old enough to marry, Marshall enrolled in George Wythe’s famous law lectures at the College of William & Mary.
Wythe’s class gave Marshall a convenient excuse to visit Polly, but Marshall could hardly keep his mind on the arcane subject matter. In the margin of his class notebook he scribbled Polly’s name over and over. Six weeks into Wythe’s course Polly’s family abandoned Williamsburg for the new capital at Richmond. Marshall quit his studies to follow her there.
Marshall was probably not the kind of suitor a prominent man like Jaquelin Ambler sought for his youngest daughter. Marshall was a rough-hewn frontier soldier born dirt-poor and raised in a two-room log cabin with his 14 brothers and sisters. He had no formal education apart from a single year of grammar school and a truncated course on Virginia law.
But despite his spotty education he was endowed with an innate intellect, sparkling eloquence and a winning personality. He would go on to become a leading attorney, an important statesman, a brilliant diplomat and the most influential chief justice in Supreme Court history.
He lived in a time in which the country was politically polarized — much like today. And the Supreme Court’s membership reflected that political conflict, much as it does today.
During Marshall’s 34 years as chief justice — longer than any other chief — he heard more than 1,100 cases. He wrote 547 opinions, and all but 36 of those were unanimous. What makes this record even more impressive is that every justice appointed to the Supreme Court during Marshall’s tenure was appointed by a Republican president who sought to overturn Marshall’s opinions.
Yet Marshall, a Federalist, prevailed by the force of his intellect and by forging common ground where none seemed possible.
Today, John Marshall is celebrated as the man who brought the U.S. Constitution to life. He defined the powers of government, protected private property and contract rights, incorporated international law into the common law, established the foundations of Native American law, defended the rights of aliens and safeguarded free speech. No one in the founding generation had a more enduring impact on the nation’s legal and political systems than Marshall, and no one did more to hold the country together in America’s frail infancy.